A Beautiful Story

This incredible, wonderful  story, published in today’s issue of The Bhutanese is so touching, more beautiful than anything a writer could have imagined. 

It starts with the death of a Japanese woman. 

She was an ordinary woman; a teacher who had saved up all her life so that she could support herself in her old age. 

And she was an extraordinary woman; deeply empathising with the the Japanese people suffering after the distressing Earthquake and Tsunami in March 2011. She made contributions so that she could help these people in some small way, although she herself was not directly affected by the disaster. More remarkable was that she had cancer, and yet she allowed room in her heart to empathise with victims of the calamity. 

Before this woman died, Japan received very special visitors. His Majesty The King was the first head of state of have visited Japan after the earthquake. His Majesty was seen paying respects to the flags of the two countries, speaking at the Japanese Parliament, visiting, along with Her Majesty The Queen, an elementary school at Fukushima which was a near nuclear disaster the likes of Chernobyl, where people hesitated to go for fear of health hazards, and offering prayers near the site of the plant. 

Japan was enamored. People followed Their Majesties, physically, appearing at locations with the Bhutan flag, and on television, admiring Their Majesties’ poise and grace, inspired by the warmth and love Their Majesties rediated. 

The Japanese teacher followed the Royal Visit minutely too. She never got an opportunity to meet Their Majesties. But she watched a wounded nation heal itself as the Royal Couple from Bhutan met with and gave hope to the people of her country. When she had been younger, she had watched another King from this country visit Japan, after another tragedy- at the funeral of the late emperor, and later, the enthronement ceremony of the new emperor. She had never forgotten the Fourth King’s visit, stating that it had left an ‘indelible impression’ on her and other women of her time.

So she wrote a will. She left some money for Bhutan. When it was read after her passing, this is what it said:

“His Majesty The King of Bhutan visited Japan with the Queen and lamas in 2011, shortly after the earthquake disaster. At the time, I listened to the speeches He (His Majesty The King) made in the district affected by the earthquake, as well as, the National Assembly Hall, and I cannot tell you how many Japanese were encouraged by his words at the time.”

And, “I was moved to tears by His Majesty’s words and grateful to him for putting his hand together and offering prayer with his lamas at the sites affected by the earthquake.”

And, “At the time of the disaster in eastern Japan, I, of course, contributed some money to the victims. However, this gift to Bhutan is slightly different from those feelings. It is not the feeling that I would like to contribute for the people who have suffered but more that, I would like to show my appreciation to the person who inspired me. Therefore, it has come to me that I would like to give my savings to the Kingdom of Bhutan led by His Majesty.”

She speaks of how her respectful affection for His Majesty The King has directly led to her affection towards Bhutan. “Therefore, I am happy if I am able to help for the educational or medical care in that country,” the will reads.

“Please receive my heart with this small amount of money and in the few remaining days of my life, I earnestly hope that my wish can be fulfilled. Although I am not particularly religious, I sometimes feel that I will be reborn in Bhutan in my next life.”

When I came across this story, I was struck by the inexpressible magic- the power of the actions of someone she has never met in real life, or spoken to. How an extraordinary person can inspire and uplift people, and turn tragic stories into something beautiful.

This story has a bittersweet ending.

Her contribution to Bhutan will fund two scholarships every year, and in a sense, leave a legacy behind. In the same manner that His Majesty’s actions and presence touched her and inspired her to extract from a heartbreaking situation, a bright ray of goodness, perhaps this action will inspire the beneficiaries of the Scholarship she has helped establish to rise out of their own difficulties, to spread some of that compassion that makes us special as human beings. 

Perhaps those who hear this story will be touched by some of that power too, and walk the earth a little more thoughtful, a little wiser, a little kinder. 

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151988570208260&set=a.485878073259.272441.43817623259&type=1&theater

That’s the link to the full article on His Majesty’s page on facebook. 

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HIS MAJESTY’S ADDRESS AT THE PARO COLLEGE OF EDUCATION, 2009

I recently reread this Address that was delivered by His Majesty The King at Paro college of Education in 2009. It defines what our Vision for Education must be, and policymakers in the Education sector would benefit from revisiting it as well- and using it to guide them in their work. Since a new government is starting afresh in all the work,  I am posting the Address in it’s entirety so that we are all reminded of what we must be working towards. 

 

HIS MAJESTY’S ADDRESS AT THE THIRD CONVOCATION OF THE ROYAL UNIVERSITY OF BHUTAN, PARO COLLEGE OF EDUCATION, 17 FEB 2009 

It always makes me very happy to meet and spend time with you. And when we do get the opportunity, we all want it to be a happy time. However, we must also understand the difference between getting together as friends to talk and laugh and then getting together to work for our people and country. At this moment, with so many senior officials gathered together, we must say we are here for work.
I can say so many good things today about the success of our country, about the hard work of our people. We have done our work well, our policies have been good – everything we have done we have done with the interests of our people and country in mind – that is why we are here today as a unique and successful nation. But my saying these things will not change anything. It serves no purpose or bears no fruits. Praising what we have already done will not bring new rewards. It is better to see what our weaknesses are, where we have not done very well, where we need to do better.
My duty is to worry every single day about our people and country. And to voice these worries frankly so that we do not get carried away, get caught unaware, or become complacent. So bear with me as I speak to you about my concerns about our education system or standards. Those of you who work in the ministry of education or related agencies must not feel singled out.
I am a firm believer that if there is one word that will stand out above all other words when we describe our country’s amazing journey of modernization over the last few decades – it is Education. Our institutions, our leaders of today – all of us, including me – are the proud products of the Bhutanese education system.
Our education system built and nurtured with your hard work and dedication has served us well. But we must understand that the times have changed here in Bhutan and all around us in the world. We cannot face new challenges with the same tools. The private sector is adjusting itself to new challenges and opportunities; the bureaucracy is finding its place in a new system of governance; the entire country is adapting to new roles in our young democracy. Thus, every person and institution must evolve to meet the aspirations of our people and the changing needs of our nation.
Today I speak on behalf of our teachers and students – our teachers will always be committed and dedicated teachers – our students will always be diligent and loyal students – but it is the duty of parents, policy makers and the government to put the right tools in their hands – the right books, the right curriculum, the right direction. 
For this we must first ask ourselves where do we want to go as an economy, as a democracy, as a nation. In other words, what is the Vision for Bhutan? Then we must build an education system that nurtures people with the right skills, knowledge and training to fulfill this Vision. The sooner we realize this the better.
The word Vision is such a profound word and yet one that is so commonly mis-used. I feel that there is no better reason to use this word than to describe the importance of education. For if our Vision for the nation is not contained in the pages of the books that our young children hold, in the words of our teachers as they lead their classrooms, and in the education policies of our governments, then let it be said – we have no Vision.
We can dream of a strong bureaucracy of the highest standards but we must not forget that those standards must be set in school where our future bureaucrats are.
We can dream of world class IT parks, of being an international financial centre, of competing at international standards but we must not forget that we can have none of these if our schools and colleges do not bestow such talents and skills.
We can dream of a nation of environmental conservation, GNH, a strong economy, a vibrant democracy and yet none are possible or sustainable if we have not already toiled and sweated in the building of a strong education system.
Our nation’s future lies in an ever-shrinking world. Our government’s goals, and the 10th plan reflect this reality. If we take even a cursory glance at the immediate goals of our nation, we will see goals such as developing hydropower, mines, health, tourism, banking, Information Technology; roads, domestic and international airports; and so on. You hear terms like ‘knowledge based’, ‘niche’, ‘broadband’, ‘innovation’, ‘data centre’, ‘sustainable’ and so on. These goals and terms are perfectly normal and as I said, reflect the reality of the changing times.
But if changing realities bring new ambitions and goals, it must also bring new plans and preparation. Most importantly, we have to ask ourselves how do we build and nurture the people who will implement the plans and fulfill our goals? The answer lies in Education. But statistics show that while we pile dream upon dream like floors on a skyscraper, the foundation needs to be strengthened.
Let me make an extremely broad and elementary observation. In all the countries where progress has been strong in the areas we strive to develop, the strength of the education system has been in Math and Science. In fact in India, the favourite subject for most students is Mathematics. In Bhutan, Mathematics is one of our main weaknesses – most students do not like Math and the majority score less than 50%. We have similar weaknesses in Science and amazingly, even English.
I have studied our own official statistics, which show these in great detail – you should look at them too – but for today, what we need to do is ask ourselves the question – “does our education system reflect our changing opportunities and challenges?” Contemplate this question. 
Contemplate! For what a grave mistake it will be to stand proud as nation on the hard work of our forefathers, the successes of our past and on the admiration and respect of the outside world today. And fail to see that it will all disappear tomorrow, if we lose sight of the fundamental reasons for our success.
Contemplate! For what a grave mistake it will be to dream with great optimism of taking our nation from this successful democratic transition into a future of even greater success, without realizing that it is not us but our children who must secure that success for the nation.
I have said it time and time again, “a nation’s future will mirror the quality of her youth – a nation cannot fool herself into thinking of a bright future when she has not invested wisely in her children.”
We always repeat what HM the fourth King once said, “the future of our nation lies in the hands of our children.” We must know that His Majesty, my father, meant that quality of education for our young Bhutanese is of paramount importance. And that it is our duty as today’s parents, leaders and citizens to provide it. We must ensure that their young little hands grow to become strong and worthy of carrying our nation to greater heights.
I cannot go into details of the education sector – there are experts among us who can do this. All I know is, as simple as it sounds, that our hopes and aspirations as a nation must be reflected in what is taught to our future generations in the classroom. This is my view. I urge parents, policymakers and the general public to reflect on this. Keep in mind:That our culture, traditions and heritage are the foundation of our Nation and our People are our greatest asset.That we have a small population – but our people love the country – with the right tools we can achieve anything.That educating our People is the first step to fulfilling our aspirations as a nation. That it is not enough to provide free education – we must provide education of such quality that it will guarantee a distinguished place for our youth anywhere in the world. And that our window of opportunity is small – today the largest section of our population are Youth – how we address quality of education now will determine whether we will build strong young citizens who will ensure a long bright future for the nation – or fail and confine such a large number of our young children and their children to generations of hardship and struggle. 

When the sun sets every evening, we go to sleep in the comfort that it will rise in the morning and things will be the same. Do not however let the light of education ever go out. For if it should become dark, even for a moment, we will find that generations of our children will suffer its effects and the light on a bright future for our nation will take decades to shine again.

Parents and teachers, I want you to know that as King my passion will always be to nurture our youth, day after day, year after year – for it is their skills, their labour and commitment to the country that will build our future. There is no other path – no other tool – for Bhutan’s future success.
I end with the words – “Our nation’s Vision can only be fulfilled if the scope of our dreams and aspirations are matched by the reality of our commitment to nurturing our future citizens.”

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The Abortion Debate

I titled this post ‘The Abortion Debate’, but the fact is that there really isn’t much of a debate going on.

Abortion is illegal in Bhutan, and newspapers occasionally write about it whenever there is an illegal-abortion related death. The penal code allows abortion in four cases- if the mother’s life is at risk, if the mother is mentally unsound, in case of rape, or incest. Many times, the four cases overlap- A minor or a mentally unsound person may be raped, and the pregnancy may pose a major health risk to the mother.

However, despite the law, many victims of rape, including minors, are forced to go through pregnancy and childbirth, as rape has to be proved.

The ‘debate’ eventually peters out, until another heart-wrenching case  occurs, and the media picks it up again. There isn’t much of a lobby from women’s rights groups, probably because the women who are in a position to raise the issue are never really directly faced with the dilemma- educated women aren’t commonly rape victims here, and they have the information to prevent an unwanted pregnancy, and even if they are in that situation, they can just go to India or Bangkok and get a quick, hush-hush abortion done, in a good, safe hospital.

The women who really need the law to change do not really have a voice- they are minors, women from remote places and poor families, and maids.

Do we need the law to change? Lets say a minor is raped. For the record, a minor below the age of 16 is always raped, even if the act was consensual, because sexual intercourse with a minor constitutes statutory rape. But rape has to be proved, even in these cases, and it means forcing a young girl, sometimes still in her early teens, to bear a child, because by the time rape has been proved (if ever it is), it is too late to terminate the pregnancy.

There are those that will say that to take a life is wrong in any case, even if the mother is a victim of rape. It may be a matter of opinion, but it infuriates me, that someone can just sit behind a desk and spout morals, and force a young woman to bear the brunt of a crime, while (in many cases) the offender walks free. My take on this is simple- if you think abortion is wrong, don’t do it. But don’t impose your beliefs on another person, especially when it causes them so much trauma.

I have said this in conversation, and the people arguing with me have told me that the ‘live and let live’ philosophy cannot apply to just anything. Should we leave a woman alone, for instance, if she happens to murder a child after it is born, reasoning that while we think murdering an infant is wrong, and we would not do it, we should let others so as they like.

But the problem with the above counter argument is that it is flawed- it doesn’t differentiate between an unborn and a newborn. When ‘life’ as we define it begins is a matter of opinion. At what point can we say, that it is not merely a potential for life, but life itself, sacred, with a right of its own? A baby may not be able to voice its rights, but we would all agree that it has the right to not be killed. Does a fetus? And at what point, exactly, does it begin to have that right? A lot of people will have a prompt answer to this question, and a lot of the answers will be vastly different.

Some people believe that the right to life begins with the potential of life. Which is why some religions forbid contraception. If terminating a pregnancy is no different from killing a newborn, then surely, not allowing fertilization to take place (and thus preventing a possible life) is no different. It may sound absurd to some, but some people do not think it is any different from abortion or murder.

And if contraception is murder, than surely, abstinence is murder as well. Each and every sperm and egg that does not become an infant has been denied the chance to life, and is therefore, essentially murder.

You may think I am being ridiculous with my comparisons, but if you are anti-abortion, explain to me why you would draw the line where you do.

So the questions remains- at what point does the object with a possibility of life begin to have a life, and have the right that comes along with life? As a sperm or egg, as a zygote, or as a fetus with hands and legs, or as a baby, breathing the air through its lungs? Broadly speaking, a zygote may be considered to have a life, in the same way that the cells in your body are considered to have a life, as are plants, and bacteria, or a person with no brain activity kept on life support (another debate, but medically and legally considered dead). But I don’t see people fighting for the right to life of these living organisms.

I will probably be roasted for comparing a human zygote to plants and bacteria, but let me make a few points. First, we may identify a ‘human with life’ as an individual with rights. A zygote can sometimes split into two, and become two individuals- who will grow to be identical twins. If a zygote, which was single, can be considered as one individual (with rights), where did the other individual come from?

Away from the philosophy on what it means to be alive, and what it means to be an individual, is reality-

A baby was found abandoned a few days back in Thimphu. It sickened me. To leave a human being with a physical form in a drain(ones own child, at that), to the dogs, literally, must need a heart that is stone cold. I do not condemn the woman. I don’t know if anyone has given thought to murder. It is in practically every movie and story, but how many of us can actually carry out the act? It must require us to be inhuman, to be able to take a life. The woman must have been desperate. How great must have been her fear, for her to give up her humanity. I never believed that circumstances made criminals- some people go through harrowing lives, and still end up being wonderful, inspirational human beings. But circumstances must, at some point, drive some people over the edge, into the ghastly.

I don’t think that legalizing abortion will devalue life- women will go through a huge trauma even if the abortion they had was legal. But when it is illegal, the traumas will just multiply- it will mean committing a crime, perhaps living with the relic of a crime, and subjecting themselves to grievous bodily harm, and often, death.

Legalizing abortion means allowing the termination of an unwanted pregnancy at an early stage, when it is safe for the mother to do so. People are so concerned about the life of an unborn, even when it is just a clump of cells fixed on a woman’s uterus. So concerned, that the living, breathing woman, who may lose her life in an unfortunate, late attempt at abortion, or her soul, while abandoning a newborn in a drain, is inconsequential to them.

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On GNH-Why So Cynical?

I just watched the Prime Minister’s interview on the BBC on GNH, and although short, the interview represents something important- that we are making a mark globally. Of course those of us who like to subscribe to online news on Bhutan have our inboxes flooded with the New York session and know that Bhutan is making a splash.

Our papers obviously have their own comments on this. Here is a cartoon that appeared on Bhutan Observer that I pulled from the Opposition Leader’s Blog. 

Here’s one from Kuensel, that I pulled from their site

I don’t really have to elaborate on the cartoons or what they mean. I have found articles in various papers that seem to reflect similar thought. Basically asking, “Why is the Prime Minister busy selling GNH in other countries while we are suffering so much back at home?” I’ve come across comments and tweets asking exactly that.

My question is a little different. “Why is everyone so cynical?”

Seriously, why? The way people talk, Bhutan sounds like the most terrible place on earth. Apparently we are jobless, penniless, high on drugs, on the verge of killing each other, and drowning in heaps of garbage while we are at it. I’m not saying we are Shangri-la, (oh, how I hate that tag) but honestly, are we THAT badly off? Sure, it’s our job to look at what’s going wrong, to bring it out, think of solutions, and try to solve problems we have. Sure, we all have a role in ensuring our new democracy is a success, and part of that is done through criticism, by making sure that we bring out issues and discuss them, thrash them out until we have solutions. But isn’t being proud of who we are and what we have part of it, too? And sure, this government is not perfect. I have railed enough about various government policies in this blog.

But isn’t this really about Bhutan, and it’s development philosophy, and not the Prime Minister or his party?

I would see this as a proud moment for Bhutan. A small country like us has nothing much to offer to the world. We won’t be sending anyone to unexplored planets of the solar systems yet, it’s unlikely that we will invent the next great gadget, and given our recent match results, we won’t win the Football world cup for at least a century.

But we have given the world GNH. Skeptics and cynics may say what they like, but this idea, this simple but brilliant thought, that we can and should, as a country, prioritize happiness while on the path to development, captures the imagination and interest of so many people. It has made headline news on BBC.

It is a proud moment for us all, that this concept came from our King. People say now that they are tired of ‘GNH talk’, that ‘certain people have hijacked GNH to their own ends’, that they are ‘against quantifying happiness’.

I’m not tired of GNH. Honestly, I don’t care if people are using GNH to their advantage. It still remains what it always was, an ideal, a novel way to look at development, and at some level, life itself.

For me, GNH means spelling out our priorities in three letters. It means choosing to grow in a certain way, in a wise way, so that later, we don’t regret what we have done, we don’t lose some things that we may never get back again. It means not allowing happiness to be a casualty on the road to development. To me GNH is about governance- I don’t know or care about how happiness can be measured, and I am happy with the fact that the country I live in not only has a policy to prioritize happiness, but it is the country that came up with this idea.

And even though it seems obvious that any country should consider the happiness of its people before making any policy or law, if no one else has ever thought about it yet, then the world needs GNH even more.

And talking about the rupee crisis, unemployment, drug abuse, corruption, youth violence, garbage, and all the other problems we have is our way of ensuring we are walking that GNH road. We need to keep bringing out all these issues, we need to keep looking for solutions, we need to keep asking those who should make a difference, including ourselves, at times, to make a difference.

I think we can do that without becoming bitter cynics who always look for the dirt, even in the best places.

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Is there a silver lining to the rupee crunch?

It’s obvious that a lot of people are worried about the rupee crunch that’s upon us Bhutanese this spring. People have children in India who they have to send money to, businessmen are worried about imports, vegetable vendors are complaining about the increased value of the rupee compared to the ngultrum and subsequently the increased price of the vegetables, everyone is worried about inflation, people who are halfway through constructing buildings are having a hard time completing their work, and the crisis may threaten the ngultrum-rupee peg itself.

But is there a flip side to the whole crisis? We have been aware for a very long time, that we have a very unhealthy practice of buying almost everything from India, while not selling enough to it, and this rupee crisis is a result of that lack of self sustenance. Will the rupee shortage force us to become a little more self sufficient?

I mentioned an interesting conversation with a friend in my last post, and he certainly thinks so. He cites the example of the lack of eggs due to the bird flu scares, and how that has led to a complete replacement of imported (and inferior quality) eggs with local eggs, and how, despite the increase in price, people still eat eggs.  In fact, he says, people won’t want to go back to eating the small white eggs again, even if they are cheaply available in the market. Sounds like a success story.

So, will that happen? When we find that Indian vegetables and other commodities are no longer available in the market, or are as expensive as the local ones because of the informal increase in rupee value, will people start consuming local goods, thus replacing the imported goods with local goods permanently?

I don’t know. I sure hope so, but I also get the nagging feeling that it isn’t going be all that automatic as my friend suggests. We can work this situation into an advantage, and use it to boost our local economy, but that definitely needs some active, conscious action.

We should have been able to replace imported items with local ones already. Local products are supposedly of better quality, healthier, and tastier. So why hasn’t the average Bhutanese preferred local goods to imported ones? Of course, reasons vary for different items, but lets talk food products here.

The first answer is probably because of the higher cost of local goods. The higher cost can be attributed to lack of competition among the local produce, and that, in turn to the small yield from farms. I may be wrong- I have heard of people having to throw away vegetables (potatoes) because they couldn’t sell it all off. But in general, I feel I am right in this. Obviously, this is conjecture, and the concerned agency needs to look at why local produce is not main source of food for us.

Incidentally, who is the concerned agency? The agriculture ministry, for now, but it’s about time we had an agency which looked solely at how to boost local economy through agriculture. Not just boost agriculture, or cottage industries, but economy through agriculture. This body can be small, and work with various other organisations, but work solely to ensure that our farmers grow more, grow for business, find ways to turn more and more farm produce into marketable goods, ensure that the products are of a certain quality, and also to help them market their goods.

The agriculture ministry probably works at helping farmers produce more. But something is definitely going wrong somewhere in between when this work doesn’t translate into results. What happened, for instance, to the three crop policy that was introduced a few years ago?

We need to look at the real problems of our farmers. Do they have the right seeds, the right breed of animals, the right knowledge to grow these crops and rear the animals? Do they have enough land, enough fertilizers, enough water to irrigate their lands? Do they have roads to help them transport their goods to the outlets? Are there enough cooperatives that help them sell their produce? Or are our farmers just lazy? We aren’t really a lot of people to feed, smaller and more difficult lands have been able to feed larger population than ours.

The rupee crisis may open the eyes of our farmers to the opportunity to market their locally grown produce, and eventually replace all imported farm produce- it may hide a silver lining.  But it may not work out that way, unless active steps are taken. We can wait and watch, or we can make it happen.

Meanwhile, you can do your bit to enhance this ‘silver lining’ by consciously choosing local products- local milk, butter, cheese, salt, vegetables, locally produced snacks (a lot of locally produced potato chips, fried nuts, fried snacks, and even fried tengma is available in town, and they are probably more healthier than MSG filled imported snacks), packaged drinks, and furniture.

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Think local to crunch the rupee crunch

Now the ‘rupee crunch’ as the current shortage of rupees in the country has been called, has become such a common phrase that I am sick of it. But it is used in practically every conversation for a reason- it impacts the lives of every Bhutanese, as they have come to realize.

I have been reading an average of 2-8 newspaper articles daily, depending on how many papers are being published everyday. And the articles, gradually covering the onset of the crisis, and then the measures and what now looks like a possible resolution- pointed out something obvious to me, which I want to share here.

First of all, though, why the rupee crisis? It’s not hard to understand. We need rupees to buy from India. We buy practically everything from India, so obviously we need a lot of rupees. On the other hand, we make very few rupees in comparison- we sell practically nothing to India, so obviously, there is going to be a shortage.

But we have always been buying a lot more more India than we have ever been selling to it- how come the rupee crunch happened now?

A task force set up to study the rupee crunch has found that the crisis was caused mainly due to excessive imports. It was probably inevitable, given that our population is increasing and rapidly and everything everyone uses is from India. Also, the rupee crisis is definitely not new, even though the people have been feeling it hard this time around. In 2009, Kuenselreported that the government is paying Nu 500,000 a day as interest on Rs 5 billion borrowed from India to meet the rupee requirement in the country. Then in December 2011, Kuensel again reported that the government had now sold USD 200 million to India to address the same problem.

The problem we are facing now did not happen overnight. But this time, we felt it because the government has run out of all ways to deal with the huge shortage. Apparently, though, this problem will not last long, because the Indian government was reported to have kept aside Rs 26 billion as aid to Bhutan, after the Bhutanese Finance Minister sent a call for aid to his Indian counterpart.

Still, looking at the fact that we had just sold 200M USD to India in December 2011, this crisis came on pretty soon, and means that the problem is not going to go away after India’s grant. What happens when we really run out of all options?

It is pretty obvious to everyone that there has to be some long term solutions to this problem. First, we should need so much rupees in the first place. meaning we shouldn’t be importing everything from India the way we do now. We buy construction materials, clothes, food, cars, and labour from India. It is about time we looked at ways to replace some of the Indian goods we use with Bhutanese items. The most obvious and advantageous item we can replace is food. It is hard to believe that almost all the vegetables we eat come from India. A lot of the rice that we eat comes from India. All packaged snacks come from India. Indian food has flooded our markets and our bloodstream, and is good very good for either.

While the government is definitely not doing enough to help farmers in Bhutan grow more and compete with Indian vegetables (and rice), it also falls upon us to consume Indian packaged food a little more sparingly. The economy aside, your body will thank you for it.   Bhutanese are slowly producing their own versions of packaged food (healthier versions, may I add) and meanwhile, it makes sense to now cut down on all things that have seen several preservatives, artificial flavours, and artificial colours.

I was talking to a friend about this, and he had something interesting to say. He said he hardly ate eggs a few years ago, but now the eggs in our market is solely local, and he has discovered that he loves them. Sure, they are very expensive, but that will probably stabilize in some time when Bhutanese eggs have enough local competition. Meanwhile, the huge red eggs with golden yolks are delicious. It’s time we gave our own products a chance, especially products that we put in our body.

Our vegetables are grown more organically, they definitely taste better, they are fresh, and they help the economy. I am sure much of our packaged food do not have as much preservatives, artificial colours or flavours. In that line, the government should begin marketing our produce as healthier (after ensuring that they are) not just for export (as has been discussed) but also locally.

I’ll have more on agricultural reforms in the next post, but for now, it’s up to us to an extent. We aren’t a lot of people, really. If we were to make a small change in our food choices, it would definitely impact the economy to an extent. It just might be the line between having a rupee crisis and not having one.

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Right to Information Act

When I was a new reporter, way back in 2008, one of the first articles I remember working on was the Right to Information Act in Bhutan. I interviewed the Chief Justice, Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye, who was involved with drafting the Bill then. India had had this huge heroic RTI success, and having read their Act, and our Constitution, I had become a strong believer in the merits of having this Act in place, and my eagerness to see RTI become law in this country must have been apparent- because the Honourable Chief Justice laughed and told me ‘These things take time, young lady.’

True to his word, it sure took time, although I don’t really know why. Somewhere in between, the Bill moved to Ministry of Information and Communications, and though I was given to understand during my interview with the Chief Justice that the draft had already been prepared, MOIC said they were still working on the draft. That was a year later, in 2009. Then in 2010 the Minister of Information and Communications was quoted to have said that the Bhutanese people were not ready to ‘discuss RTI, let alone introduce it in Parliament’ in Kuensel. Confusing, to say the least, given that his own ministry was drafting the law.

There wasn’t much talk of RTI after that, although a Facebook page (with a straggling 50 members) occasionally posted updates.

Today, the good news is that National Council member Sangay Khandu has singlehandedly introduced the Bill in Parliament. You can download the Draft Bill from his website (linked to his name) and provide feedback and suggestions- the bill can still be worked on, as the article in ‘The Bhutanese’ newspaper explains.

A look at Right to Information, the RIGHT and the ACT-

Should we talk about whether people should have the right to information?

People HAVE right to information that impacts their lives,  irrespective of whether their government grants them that right. People who disagree are stupid, and it is a pointless debate. Fortunately, we don’t have to have that debate. The Constitution grants us, the citizens of Bhutan, the right to information. Look up Section 3 Article 7- “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to information.” So the debate is not about whether we have the right to information. We HAVE the right to information, granted to us by the supreme Constitution.

So why do we need a ‘Right to Information Act’?

Turns out, even though it is a Constitutional right, the government doesn’t really abide by it. I know this firsthand- everyday as a media person, I have been denied various documents, papers, and all kinds of information. In the article in ‘The Bhutanese’, MP Sangay Khandu talks about how HE (an MP, who sits in parliament and works on laws and policies and therefore needs to be the most well informed of all) was denied papers! I have linked the Kuensel article above which talks about how the reporter was ironically denied the draft RTI Bill itself. We need this act to ensure that the Constitutional Right given to every Bhutanese citizen is upheld.

What happens when someone refuses information citing reasons such as lack of time, or for no reason?

Again, why we need RTI legislation. It should outline a procedure for acquiring information, and a procedure for giving information, and should clearly state how the information may be presented, a time frame for giving out requested information, the consequence of not giving out requested information, that the agency should give a written explanation if they are, for some reason, unable to give the information.

Isn’t it dangerous, though, to give out information at the asking, to anyone and everyone?

Some information need to be kept secret. There are always some things people need not, and should not know. No one needs to know the personal lives of Politicians (really, although tabloids around the world really don’t care), no one should know, without your permission, the details of an invention/art/idea that you have created. Information that would lead to crime and violence, information that would threaten National Security, information which once released would cause injustice to a person, information that would hamper solving crimes, prevent arrests, assist in crimes- these are a few examples of the information that should not be given out. And the Act should clearly mention these situations, where the information that has been sought can be rightly withheld.

If this makes sense to you, please support RTI in Bhutan- like the Facebook page- I’m not sure who runs it, but it is pretty informative, write to NC MP Sangay Khandu if you have anything to add to the Draft Bill. And talk to your MPs, let them know how you feel about this Act.

We can never be ‘not ready’ for this Act, because no matter who we are, or where we live, right to information that impacts our lives is an inherent right of all people. And in Bhutan, our Constitution supports my claim, and ends the (if there ever was) debate about whether we have a right to information or not. It is simply a matter of ensuring that this right is Upheld.

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Lifting the ban on sale of Tobacco? Hopeful

As I write this now, the National Council of Bhutan is debating the Amendment to the Tobacco Control Act bill.

I was heartened to read in NC member (Gasa) Sangay Khandu’s blog that 11 members of the NC have voted to remove the ban on the sale of Tobacco in Bhutan. While this is far from the majority in a house of 25 members, the remaining members are divided in their opinion, so this is still the largest group agreeing to a certain idea. And this gives me hope.

I agree with the 11 members that removing the ban itself may be the best way forward. As a journalist, before the 3 year imprisonment law came into force, I wrote several articles exploring the ineffectiveness and pointlessness of the ban. It wasn’t working. There was a huge black market, and even after the penalties were made so harsh, there were and are, still, plenty of detractors.

A lot of people who oppose the 3 year imprisonment law still support the ban and agree that ‘smugglers’ should be punished, while we are lenient to those caught with small amounts of the contraband.

But a lot of people who were caught last year because of the infamous Act have been sellers and so called ‘smugglers’ and I saw a lot of sympathy for these people who faced the 3 years. And if a lot of people sympathize with someone who is apparently a criminal by law, then their crime must not be as heinous as the lawmakers and enforcers seem to think. After all, no one sympathizes with a murderer or a rapist.

I am not saying that sentences should be doled out depending on public perception- some countries have civilian juries who echo the opinion of the people, but I think our system is fine- as long as the laws are made to ensure that a lot of people don’t feel there has been a miscarriage of justice.

Let’s face it- tobacco is not so bad, and needlessly criminalizing people for wanting to make some money or unable to give up a bad habit is- needless. And wrong.

The Tobacco Act, as it is now, gives easy access (legally) to tobacco to people living near the border areas, and makes it very difficult for others living farther way to access the same. And obviously that leads to black market, as people are willing to patronize the illegal sellers, and shopkeepers are willing to make an extra buck when there are customers.

Let people have access to legal tobacco if they want to use it. Let some private people make some money out of it. Tax it so that the government benefits, and also to discourage people from using it by making it an expensive habit. Carry out continuous campaigning to ensure people know what they are subjecting their bodies to, and to make tobacco use look bad. Maybe even get users to pay for the free health services others can avail for certain diseases that have been proved to be as a result of tobacco use. And enforce the right of non-users to a clean, tobacco free environment- which means smoking ban in public places, no smoking in the presence of children, etc.

Tobacco is bad, and no one else should bear the costs/damages it inflicts. But everyone has a right to keep their bad habit as long as no one else is harmed by it. SO let them keep it.

Spending so much time and resources trying to punish some people who have a bad habit is petty. I am sure the government has bigger, more important matters to take care of.
That being said, the Tobacco Act as it is now is not a small matter. Using tobacco is, but then this law has imprisoned people, ruined innocent lives. If we allow this law to remain, it remains as a gross violation of human rights- and it tells us it is ok for the law to interfere in the private lives and choices of people. Other laws that interfere in the private lives of people will never be changed, and we will all have agreed that this is right.
While the NA discussions on the TCA amendment bill were disheartening, (when will our lawmakers realize that religion should never have anything to do with laws?) I hope the NC chooses the right path.
I believe that the Facebook page calling for amendment to the TCA, and other people who blogged, wrote letters to the media, and campaigned for change had a role to play in it being introduced as an urgent bill, and I believe that those people can continue to be a voice of reason. I hope they continue to work to ensure that democratic Bhutan goes in the right direction.
UPDATE- The NC has voted to lift the ban on sale of Tobacco itself! Now the Bill goes to the National Assembly, and this is the time to talk to your MP and make them see sense, speak louder, clearer! Next parliament in six months time and this bill wont keep coming up again, now is the time to see it happen!

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The King and I

I haven’t slept on my own bed for more than a week at a stretch since August this year- I have been fortunate to have been a part of the Royal Entourage travelling into the east in September- my first ‘Eastern Tour’ accompanying His Majesty- and then I was able to witness the Royal Wedding in Punakha, and then travel to India accompanying His Majesty on the first Royal State Visit since the wedding.
Before all this, I intended to write many entries in this blog- there were certainly many experiences I wanted to write about- but now it’s far too late to put myself back in the East or the Royal Wedding or Delhi and write the series of articles I wanted to.
But these past three months have been experiences that I want to say something about, so hopefully I am able to put all that I took from these months into words here. Following the Royal Wedding I read a lot of articles in local as well as international media- I think interest in Bhutan has never been so high internationally- at least in my experience. A fair number of articles I found online are titled ‘The King and I’ – they are interesting glimpses of conversations and moments that the journalists shared with His Majesty- a memorable and personal moment for the writer. What I have realized, from the tour and the Royal Wedding, is the significance of this personal ‘the King and I’ moment with a King who has spoken to almost every person in the country by now, and continues to informally speak to almost everyone He meets- guests, citizens, tourists and journalists.

The special thing about this moment is that although we know that His Majesty the King is the King to seven hundred thousand Bhutanese, and that He would know a great many of them by name, in that special moment, He is my King, addressing me, not as a Bhutanese or an employee of the secretariat, but as Me. I have had my own ‘The King and I’ moment with His Majesty, and in that moment He was My King. It felt like He knew me for exactly who I am, He knew about my hopes and dreams, and offered words that inspire me to take the path that I want to take in life. The amazing thing about the ‘King and I’ moment is that I am sure I am not the only one who feels like they share a special connection with His Majesty that can only be described by saying ‘He is My King’.

Like I said, I was fortunate enough to be a part of the Eastern Tour, the first time I had been to parts of my own country, best of all, accompanying His Majesty the King. Travelling to these parts of Bhutan was an experience of a lifetime- the stunning beauty of the landscapes, the indescribable richness and magic in these places, and most of all, the people, who lined roads waiting to meet with their King and Queen, to build memories of their own ‘King and I’ moments. When I started on this tour, I was working on something for which I was reading the Addresses made by His Majesty in various places, and it felt like some of the things He said was said straight to me. Like this excerpt from an address in Kolkata, which will remain forever with me, and inspire me everyday: “I imagine my life is a book that I am engaged in writing. In so doing, I find that every moment brings the urge and energy to do something special, something worthy to write into the book. When I am confronted by some challenge, I find the opportunity to write a wonderful tale of hardship, suffering, hard work, determination and commitment. When faced by the temptation to take short cuts and cheat, the book serves as my conscience. In the end, after all, like anyone else I want the story of my life to be as good as possible. But this story is written by my own best judge – the one that cannot be cheated or deceived – myself.”

That is the special thing about the ‘King and I’ moment- because it is not limited to a moment in which I had the fortune to speak to my King- because whenever He speaks to everyone in the country, it also feels like He knows I am listening, and that He is speaking directly to me- to each one of us separately, recognising our dreams and hopes, encouraging us to follow our path.

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PM’s interview on BBS

I thought that the Prime Minister’s interview yesterday on BBS was rather important, and expected the papers today to discuss the many things he said, because he said a lot of things which merits discussion and papers are ideal for that.
Unfortunately nothing like that happened, Kuensel reported accurately what he said about Gyelposhing (I suppose the editors didn’t feel it was necessary to mention other issues because much of what he said on them was a repetition of what he has already said before) but I saw no analysis, and only a rather on the surface editorial in Bhutan Today.
We sorely miss political commentary/columnists in Bhutan; I would have liked to hear what a lot of bright minds had to say on the interview. Hopefully I will be able to talk to the many smart people I am fortunate to know, eventually, and hear their opinions, but I still feel the kind of discussion coming out of paper analysis would have been good.
Talk was about before the interview that rather than BBS inviting the PM to speak, it was more likely that the PM had asked for some time on the news to clarify mainly Gyelposhing because he hadn’t done that great a job in the last meet the press and perhaps he felt that papers weren’t reporting what he said to his liking and wanted a chance to be heard directly.
Personally I didn’t think the PM made any major differences to public perception on issues by appearing on TV, although that is a matter of opinion- perhaps some people were convinced and moved by his appearance on the national television. For me, most of what the PM said was not new- so whatever opinions I had on various issues are still unchanged.
Here’s what the PM said on several topics yesterday
(This is from memory because I failed to take notes, I think I got the gist right, but I am not quoting verbatim and no one should assume that this is exactly what he said if they haven’t watched the interview- I hope BBS uploads a video online for people who want to watch- last I checked they hadn’t yet)
On joining Facebook- The Prime Minister always wanted to join Facebook but never got the time, – one reason why he joined was because he promised disappointed graduates at the National Graduate Orientation Programme this year who were not able to ask their questions that he would be available on Facebook and interact with them directly. He added that Facebook has allowed him to reconnect with the youth.
I suppose the PM is trying to make a genuine attempt to connect to the people, as he seems to be adding everyone who sends him a friend request. Bhutanese Blogger writes about this (read here) and I found myself rather agreeing to most of what he writes, except for the point about indiscriminately adding everyone, because I think as PM it is ok to connect to everyone. A little brushing up on social networking skills would serve our Lyonchen well.
On Tobacco Act- The PM said several things- first, that the majority of people, who are non-smokers, wanted the Act, and the parliament was merely submitting to the wishes of the people. Second, he said that all criticism was retrospective and no one criticized the law when it was being made. (I’m not sure if he also said that any law passed by the parliament has to be in effect for at least a year before it can be amended- he has said this before, but I don’t think he repeated this yesterday)Third, he repeated that it the law would be amended to clearly define the penalties to ensure it is not the smokers who are punished. Last, he said that the law enforcers have implemented the act very strictly, and that the court has interpreted it narrowly, putting everyone in jail for 3 years.
I have always felt strongly about this piece of legislation- it puts innocent people behind bars for three years! And even though I am glad at the shift in government view toward this Act, I still am a little wary on what will change after the amendment. First, it does not matter whether or not the majority of Bhutanese are non-smokers, or if they wanted this Act. Democracy is not about allowing the majority to dictate to the minority how to live their lives. That is why we have a secular state where all religions are allowed- our democratic principles do not allow this kind of tyranny of the majority, and pandering to the wishes of the majority to step on the rights of the minority is no more than vote mongering. And I highly doubt that the people wanted a law to jail smokers. This is just the parliament going overboard.
On criticism, although many people saw this act as ridiculous even before the first person was arrested (including me) I guess we didn’t voice it loudly enough, so I accept that the law has been criticized in retrospect and that is what amendments are for, although what we now say to those poor people behind bars for months I don’t know.
On the third point I worry. I hope the people against the TCA now recognize that they have been heard, but that now they need to make sure that the future amendment is sensible. So far I don’t see any discussions on what should the amended Act look like- this needs to be done publicly and loudly enough for the parliament to hear this time.
Lastly- how can the parliament frame a law and expect enforcers to go easy? They were just doing their jobs, and the courts were following the book- and I think this should continue- we should have good laws, and the enforcers and courts should adhere to them- not the other way around.
On Gorgan Shingkhar Road- The PM appreciated the conservationists for raising their concern- good for democracy- but said in this case the concerns are unnecessary. Bhutan already has 81 percent green cover, it is not necessary the road will harm the ecosystem, the people need the road desperately, and the government will ensure the road is built in the most ecofriendly way possible.
I don’t know where the 81 percent came from, I haven’t found any written literature saying so- I would appreciate if someone would point me to it- I’m surprised at the changing figure of our forest cover and a little concerned that it is just numbers. Besides that I don’t have an opinion on the road- perhaps the people do need it more, perhaps it won’t damage the ecosystem, I don’t have the facts to argue on any side. Of course people must always be a priority. We cannot conserve at the cost of development for the poorest people. But is there no other way, are people really going to benefit so much, is the government not breaking any laws to build this road? I’m afraid some of the questions may be answered too late- in retrospect- but for now I think what is important is PM’s commitment that the road shall be built in the most ecofriendly way possible, what we can do is ensure this.
On high salary for DHI employees- The PM said that the disparity was perceived by the people who believe that they carry out the same responsibilities, and that DHI enjoys autonomy, which is why it pays its employees based on global trends for payment to such organisations. However, he said, since Bhutan is different, the Royal Government has brought this matter to the notice of the finance ministry, and that discussions are on with DHI.
I don’t have an opinion in this either-perhaps DHI does need to attract the best minds, but are they really doing this? I also don’t know how they plan to sort this out; definitely not by knocking down the already fixed salaries for current employees I am sure.
Lottery- The PM said that the lottery business is ‘bad’ and not in line with our GNH values, and also it is hard to ensure it is being run cleanly – which is why the decision to stop running the business. Apparently we also have enough money to not need the lottery business.
Whether lottery is ‘bad’ is really a matter of personal opinion. Gambling is definitely not an alien culture as far as I know, and lottery in itself is rather clean when compared to other forms of gambling. I really don’t see what is so ‘bad’ about the lottery business or how it would make our people or anyone else- less happy- unless they are being cheated. Perhaps it will be difficult to ensure it is run cleanly, but I feel it could be taken up by a private firm if the government doesn’t want to soil its name. Every business will need some form of monitoring, and eventually we will need to look beyond Bhutan for business if we are to grow. And we can never have enough money, especially not when donors are pulling out and there are people living in poverty.
I think the best way to go from here really is cleaning up the mess (finding out exactly why and how things went wrong and identifying and holding those responsible accountable) and starting afresh.
Gyalposhing- The PM said that the township was developed on the land acquired by the Kurichu project, and that people were adequately compensated for even the huts, and that there is no hue and cry from those people whose lands were acquired then. Moreover, he said, that land had been abandoned by most farmers who were given the land in 1981, because it was agriculturally unproductive. He added that there were not many people applying for land there and even now more than 50 plots are empty.
On the allotment, the PM said that it was in accordance with rules and regulations prevailing at that time. According to the PM, allotment was based on a circular issued by the Late Dasho Dorji Tenzin, the then secretary for ministry of works and human settlement. The circular cited a directive from the highest level, that once the town has been planned, land may be allotted by a committee.
Now this is interesting. At first glance the arguments seem to be reasonable, if there were few applicants and some plots still vacant, and no law was broken in the allotment, what is the problem? Strangely, and rather unintentionally, I think, BBS aired some contradicting interviews with people involved with Gyelposhing right before and after the interview with the PM. One was a man who had applied for land then, and had not got it- he said that there was a ‘lucky dip’ selection the first time and he didn’t get the land, and the second time it was a fixed list- no lucky dip.
Another man, a member of that committee that PM mentions, said that they were there just to sign the papers; the list was pre decided when it came to them. This at least proves that the government does not dictate BBS content like many like to speculate, but also puts us on square one. All we can do is wait and watch how ACC handles this case.

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